When I was studying history as an undergraduate student, I was particularly fascinated by discussions about historiography. Perhaps it was the influence of my English Lit background, but I tended to do close readings of historical accounts, approaching them almost as literary texts that reflected much about the assumptions and attitudes, biases and values of the writer. It was therefore interesting to be asked in certain history classes to analyse the works of historians not primarily for what they revealed about the past, but for what insights they provided about the particular way of doing history that was “in vogue” at the time.

Over the course of this year, I’ve seen how the idea of the present’s imposition on the past is as applicable to public history as it is to traditional, scholarly history. History in the public realm is certainly as much (or perhaps even more) about the present — that is, the “present” of whoever is, or was, writing the history, composing the plaque text, or curating the exhibit, for instance — as it is about the past.

Museums, for example, as Helen Knibb’s article, “ ‘Present but not Visible’: Searching for Women’s History in Museum Collections,” suggests, do not necessarily present information, in the context of women’s history, about the actual lives and experiences of women from a particular time period. Instead, the artifacts may reveal more about the preoccupations and personal tastes of curators, or about the collecting or donating impulses of those whose items are on display. With regards to the latter, Knibb suggests that women may have simply donated items they thought were important from the standpoint of the museum or of society, rather than in relation to their own experiences. She raises the interesting question of whether “museum collections tell us more about how women collect than how they lived their lives.” [1] Knibb’s article reminds me that museums themselves are constructed sites that are very much influenced by contemporary concerns.

The idea that public history is as much about the time period of the people presenting the history as it is about the history being presented is, I’m sure, hardly startling. But it does remind me of the need which underlies the rationale for these blogs – the need for self-reflexivity. As history students, my peers and I have been trained to read historical accounts critically, with an eye open to its constructed nature, to the ways in which the account reflects the biases of the historian and the preoccupations of his or her time. As public history practitioners, we will have to direct that critical gaze inwards, to assess how our own assumptions and biases are shaping the histories we will help to produce. Moreover, we will also have to negotiate our way through the assumptions and biases of others, who, in the collaborative realm of public history, will also have a stake – sometimes a very substantial one – in the history-making process. Given how contentious history in the public realm can be, not only the need for critical self-reflection but also the ability to practice what Rebecca Conard has called the “art of mediation” [2] are crucial requirements for the practicing public historian.

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[1] Helen Knibb, “‘Present But Not Visible’: Searching For Women’s History in Museum Collections,” Gender & History 6 (1994): 355, 361-362. The quote is from page 362.

[2] Rebecca Conard, “Facepaint History in the Season of Introspection,” The Public Historian 25, no. 4 (2003): 16. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/.

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One of my best friends and I have a tendency to reminisce about our shared experiences. During these (sometimes admittedly nostalgic) moments of looking back, I am always amazed at the different things that have stood out for each of us – a telling word, gesture, expression that I or she would not have ever recalled without the presence of the other.

In a way, then, my friend and I help make each other’s history more complete by remembering details that the other has forgotten. In a way too, it means that the past – or that particular version being remembered in bits and pieces – becomes quite spontaneous for us, entirely dependent on the course of the conversation, on the ebb and flow of memory on that particular day. Reminiscing about the same experience with my friend years later, I find that other aspects surface; the past is, one might say, renewed and re-created in each instance of remembrance, a mental landscape that is both familiar and yet full of surprising colour too.

I think one of the interesting aspects of conducting oral history interviews – which I had the privilege of doing recently with one of the former staff members at a local health care institution – is observing that very organic and spontaneous process of memory in play. While I, of course, did not share in any experiences of my interviewee, bringing only my knowledge of certain aspects of the history of the institution to the table, it was interesting to see how certain memories surfaced for her based on the flow of the conversation.

My understanding of this institution’s history informed the questions that I prepared. Yet the interview was by no means confined to these questions. They became starting points, triggering memories of other aspects of my interviewee’s experience – ones that I had not thought in advance to ask about and perhaps ones that she had not revisited until that moment in time. Another day, another interviewer, would undoubtedly bring other memories to the surface, revealing new pieces of a multifaceted history that can be tapped and reconfigured in so many ways.

And speaking about fragments of the past, I left the interview with an unexpected piece of history – literally. My interviewee was excited and eager to give me a brick that she had kept from the first building of her former work place, constructed in the late 19th century. Embedded with the shape of an animal, it now sits at the foot of my desk, a tangible piece of the past that stands in contrast to the transience and spontaneity of memory.

I’ve come to Western prepared to cast off my Luddite tendencies and to embrace technology wholeheartedly (or, I might add, as wholeheartedly as can be possible for one who has always been rather critical of science & technology, and their impact on human lives).

Last week, in our Public History meeting, I had cause to re-think the matter. I had cause to re-think matter itself, to consider the physical versus the virtual.

As a class, we visited the UWO Medical Artifact collection housed in the basement of the Health Sciences Addition. There our professor, Dr. Michelle Hamilton, gave us a tour of the collection and even bid us to don on white gloves so that we could examine certain objects in particular. This was going to be interesting. My experience with “handling” artifacts has mostly consisted of manipulating images of 3-D objects. Being able to zoom in and out of the image and to rotate it in 360 degrees so as to view the object in a multitude of angles has made me think that perhaps the virtual is sufficient. It’s fast, painless, interactive, accessible, and safe – the artifact’s continued preservation is not at risk. What more could one ask for?

Well, as it turns out, I was reminded about the weight of matter.

Picking up one of various blades belonging to a late 19th century amputation kit, I had a visceral reaction. The blade was labelled “Amputation Saw” and was likely used during the American Civil War. I ran my finger along its grooved ebony handle; examined the engraving that read “A.L. Hernstein, New York”; noticed how the wide blade caught the light and gleamed; stared at its sharp, serrated edge and the brown specks of dried blood against the cold metal – and I shivered. I was thinking keenly about the men with whom this blade had come into contact, and about the military surgeons who had had to use it, and about how it had somehow survived and made its way all the way from the fields of warfare and agony into my hands in the 21st century.

If there is anything that connects us to the past as directly as possible, it is physical matter. As Thomas Schlereth has noted: “Material culture is not only the most ancient of time’s shapes, it is also a tangible form of a past time persisting in present time.” Still later he adds that “to the historical researcher, [artefacts] are here in his time; and yet they are also still there in another time – that is, in their time.”[1] We will never be able to travel back to a moment in history but artifacts are able to travel forward and speak to the next generation. Well, perhaps “speak” is not the right word: I have always been fascinated and frustrated by the silent immensity that objects hold, by their stories that they keep jealously hidden when their owners have long passed away or there is no one to tell them. But silent as they may be at times, artifacts do give us an immediate and mostly unmediated connection to the past which its virtual embodiment is not able to do.

Of course, I still think, like many, that computer technology has made the documents and objects of the past so much more accessible – and in turn, seem so much more varied and abundant – than they have ever been. There will not, perhaps, be a great many who will get to examine that amputation kit as closely as I could last week; but they will be able to see and consider it using the collection’s website. And too, I’d add that in discussions about the virtual and the physical, it does not need to become an either/or debate. Physical objects along with their virtual counterparts enhance the study of history; both help one to come to grips with the past. As Anthony Grafton has put it, in the specific context of books and the ramifications of their increasing digitization, “these streams of data, rich as they are, will illuminate, rather than eliminate, books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you.”[2] This is all true.

But nonetheless, I think it is good to be reminded, now and then, in an age where the line between the virtual and physical seems to be blurring, where the virtual has almost as much weight – and even more – as the physical, that matter still does, well, matter.

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[1] Thomas J. Schlereth, “Material Culture and Cultural Research,” in Material Culture: A Research Guide, ed. Thomas J. Schlereth (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985), 9-10.

[2] Anthony Grafton, “Future Reading: Digitization and its Discontents,” New Yorker.com, November 5, 2007, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/11/05/071105fa_fact_grafton (accessed September 17, 2008).